Thursday, April 8, 2010

Muscular Empathy

(Photo from To learn more about their amazing work visit their website.)

I want you to meet a new friend of mine. His name is Bill Drayton.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Bill the last several days at the Ashoka Future Forum. ( Bill is the Founder of Ashoka.

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Bill, several other Ashoka Fellows and staff and some fabulous folks from the Knight Foundation. (

The topic was empathy.

Bill Drayton founded Ashoka 30 years ago. Ashoka supports the work of social entrepreneurs from across the globe. Bill believes, as do I, that a big idea in the hands of a social entrepreneur can literally transform the world. Instead of fixing what is broken, a social entrepreneur creates something new altogether. Currently Ashoka has supported, inspired and connected approximately 2000 fellows. I am fortunate enough to be one of those.

Thirty years of carefully examining the connections that bind us, one to the other, has led Bill to see how empathy is the one significant thread that weaves its way through the tapestry of all of the fellows’ works. Every Ashoka fellow is gifted with the ability to view multiple perspectives…to see through the lens of another…to walk in someone else shoes and in my words…love deeply, authentically and wholly.

I was moved several times in the middle of that meeting, but at one point I could no longer contain my tears. I was as present as I’ve ever been.

I realize that my entire life has been focused on elevating the power of the feminine. (The feminine can be honored and held by both women AND men). Tuesday afternoon,I participated in a dialogue where nine very influential men and women understood that power. A part of me rejoiced in knowing that from the spheres of influence seated at that table, something grand was happening. Something grand IS happening.

At last the power of empathy, compassion and love are, indeed, rising up to a new level of awareness across all sub-groups of our world, including the world of men

Bill Drayton is leading that crusade.

I've often felt like a bull in a china shop trying to force empathy, love and compassion on the power-elite...and have known all along that forcing these concepts on anyone will never work. Yesterday I saw and FELT the power of empathy at work in the room and know that as long as we all hang onto IT…as long as we unabashedly claim it as our own and as a driving force behind the work that we do, we will be living the very thing that will bring about the shift we are looking for. In theory, (my idealism is talking now) not only will individuals be at peace with themselves and their neighbors, but so too will nations. As Gandhi said..."Be the change."

And so, today I honor the men, Bill Drayton included, who are willing to talk, live and practice empathy. I am going to intentionally recognize and express my gratitude to the men in my life who so openly share their love, compassion and tenderness with those around them.

As a reminder of the power of empathy, I find myself needing to re-tell, re-mind and re-honor this father…this man who so epitomizes the power of “muscular empathy” a phrase we coined during that meeting. So here goes...this one's for Bill.

His name is Paul. He is 39 years old. A handsome professional man, Paul drives a BMW and wears custom suits with starched crisp white button-down shirts. He is respected and reserved. Yet little known to his friends is the hell in which he has lived. You see, 8 years ago his wife, his life partner and best friend died. She died giving birth to their daughter Shelby.

Shelby’s entrance into this world wasn’t easy. For hours, over 20 innocent and vulnerable hours, Shelby and her mom worked tirelessly to take her from the warm safe waters of her mother’s womb to this world. So when Shelby was finally lifted into this world, her mother went on to the next.

Paul’s world isn’t what he had expected: the crisp starch of his collar, the million-dollar home and a daughter, who looked like every other 8-year old, but had the intellectual and conceptual understanding of a 4-year old.

His life felt like hell. It’s hard work being a single Daddy with a developmentally delayed little girl. Every morning as he would gently brush her hair, Shelby would tell him stories--stories that break a father’s heart. Stories of how she is afraid to speak sometimes, because the other students at her school make fun of her. Stories of how they call her dummy or generally disregard her as anything, but a nuisance. Paul didn’t know what else to do and so when the Girls on the Run brochure floated home in her book bag, he enrolled her. Shelby’s spirit soared at Girls on the Run. Her teammates understood her uniqueness and accepted her not in spite of it, but because of it.

Over the program-weeks, Shelby had come to trust her teammates. They weren’t like the other girls at school. They didn’t make fun of her. They wrapped their little souls around her and walked her through the Girls on the Run games and activities. The Girls on the Run girls were different. They listened to her when she had something to say and they saw the humanness of her. They valued her for who she was.

On this particular day, Shelby was running in her first Girls on the Run 5k and her father was there to see her. I stood at the finish line cheering clapping and high-fiving girls as they crossed that finish line. One hour later every girl had finished. “No wait,” the police escort informed us. There is one more little girl. And so while most folks had moved on to the after-party in the nearby park a handful of us waited.

When off in the distance I saw a little figure walking, as if on a mission. Her arms pumping beside her like pistons. Her blonde pigtails flopped on either side. Her coaches were beside her, smiling and crying. Slowly word spread that Shelby was finishing and one by one folks returned to the finish line. As Shelby made her way up that last stretch of road, hundreds of people ran to take their place roadside.

The momentum was building and then as if directed to do so I looked to my right and there dead center in the finish line stood Paul. His starched shirt, khaki pants and polished loafers. His hair was perfectly placed. Shelby’s jacket was neatly draped across his left arm.

The man was stoic, reserved, empty eyed… and alone.

And then without warning, this man, this brave, brave man dropped to his knees…Shelby’s coat falling to the asphalt below…and with wild abandon, he lifted his arms to the heavens above and wept from the depths of his soul. Tears were flowing down his cheeks to the earth below, like small blessings on the path of his daughter’s approaching feet.

I won’t ever be able to shake the image of this man as he fell to his knees, surrendering his pain, revealing his willingness to shed the external armor of a man trapped in the box of cultural success and apathy, to expose his soul, his core, his vulnerabilities. To welcome his little girl, Shelby, as she ran to him, there at the finish line. Welcome her with his arms around her small body. Welcome her to this new life, this new heaven, the one in which they could inhabit peacefully together.

Running is no longer a means to an end, but a powerful metaphor for what could be.

Empathy, Hope. Joy. Determination. Compassion. Strength and of course the greatest of these…Love.

And so…please, I I need…. the hope that each of you possess. Send me your stories of those men in your life…who have empathetically given, revealed and lived love. Let’s honor them. Now, in this space, this time and invite them to share themselves with the world of Girls on the Run.


  1. Molly,
    Such a terrible and wonderful story, thanks for sharing! Although much lighter in it's delivery but powerful in its meaning its my favorite public service announcement video on utube. It'll make you tear up and laugh at the same time. Check it out: (if the link doesnt work just search cheerleader dad). Again thanks for sharing.
    Fondly, Sue (GOTR Hunterdon County, NJ)

  2. Hey Molly -- I just posted some info about GOTR on my blog. Several of the folks following my journey want to get involved. I just love your organization!!! Thanks for giving me a reason to give it my all!

  3. what an amazing and inspiring story, thank you so much for sharing